The old maple is dying.
It faded slowly at first, but last summer it began to fade rapidly, its lichen-covered branches breaking and falling to the ground, the gray bark covered with dark green moss. It has much fewer leaves. A crack goes up the middle. More plants grow in the crevices of the trees: purple purple reeds, spiky grasses, and red-tinged euonymus. For the first time, I see three woodpecker holes, so beautifully aligned they look like Orion’s belt.
I don’t know why the tree is dying, so I do some research. Maples are prone to many diseases, including anthracnose, verticillium wilt, and powdery mildew, but I’m still confused, so I call Brian Crooks, a ranger with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The giveaway, he says, are the little honey-colored mushrooms at the base of the tree, indicating that the maple has a fungus: armillaria root rot.
The Armillaria fungus affects many hardwoods and softwoods, especially maples, oaks, and elms. Black, fibrous rhizomorphs grow through the soil to the roots and trunk of the tree and attack the wood. If I remove the bark, I might see fans of shiny white mycelium. But none of that is visible yet. I learn that the Armillaria fungus is the largest organism in the known world, larger than the 200-ton blue whale. A patch of Armillaria was discovered in Oregon in 1998 covering 2,384 acres.
I don’t know how big ours is, but I am concerned that it will encroach on a nearby tree, a large red oak that is my husband’s favorite.
I wonder if the maple doesn’t like our new Western Pennsylvania climate: extreme heat, dryness, then microbursts of rain and wind, and flash floods. When our floods come now, the water runs down the hill so close that the maple is in the middle of a pond, a stream runs through it. I know from maple sugaring with my friend and his 89 year old uncle that changing weather conditions are making sugaring difficult. For the sap to flow in February or March, the days must be warm and the nights cold. The timing is less predictable now. But I’m not a scientist, so I ask Crooks.